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Iran and Turkey step up cooperation

August 29, 2017 at 9:22 am

General Staff of the Armed Forces of Iran, Mohammad Bagheri (C) is welcomed by Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces Hulusi Akar (L) in Ankara, Turkey on 15 August, 2017 [Mehmet Ali Özcan/ Anadolu Agency]

The visit to Ankara earlier this month by the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Major-General Mohammad Baqeri, is a clear indication of a significant upgrade in bilateral ties, particularly in the security sector. It is also an indication of the eclipse of the Syria crisis as a major thorn in relations between Iran and Turkey.

Syria undoubtedly loomed large in the discussions between Baqeri and his Turkish counterpart, General Hulusi Akar, not least as the conflict is taking new shape following the collapse of most of the rebel groups. Most important of all, the ascendance of Al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists in Idlib has called into question a proposed de-escalation zone in that strategically important province.

However, the most important item during the generals’ discussion is likely to have centred on proposed plans to contain the ambitions of Syrian militant Kurdish groups, in particular the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which are aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Beyond Syria, security and geopolitical matters flowing from Kurdish irredentism are likely to have been discussed at length between the Turkish and Iranian military and security chiefs. Of note is a looming independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan which poses direct challenges to national security for both countries.

Strong and enduring ties

As the region’s two leading non-Arab powers, Iran and Turkey have enjoyed relatively strong and stable ties in the modern period. Indeed, the Iranian-Turkish border has been quiet for nearly 200 years; the last Turco-Iranian conflict concluded in 1823.

Read: Iranian military chief meets Turkish president

These ties survived the Iranian revolution of 1979 which posed a direct political and ideological challenge to Turkey’s post-Ottoman secular order. Moreover, ideological tensions have slowly receded in tandem with the advance of Turkey’s Islamic movement and the attendant political domination of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

Whilst institutional Islamisation in Turkey is not as deep-rooted as in Iran (which experienced a tumultuous revolution in 1979) — and unlike Iran the Turkish military continues to pose a threat to the political order as evidenced by last year’s failed coup — the two states’ ideological orientation is now arguably more aligned than it has ever been.

However, the Syria conflict has been a major issue as the two countries backed opposing sides. Iran stood firmly by its longstanding ally in Damascus, while the AK Party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan swung behind the rebellion, guided in part by neo-Ottoman foreign policy concepts.

Notwithstanding the brutality of the Syrian conflict, and the high stakes it posed to the conflict’s external protagonists, Turco-Iranian ties were sufficiently strong and deep-rooted so as not to be profoundly unsettled by the war.

It is against this backdrop that the two states appear anxious to fix the damage wrought by the Syrian conflict. First and foremost, Major-General Baqeri’s visit to Ankara – which has been widely seen as the most important Iranian military delegation to visit Turkey since the 1979 Iranian revolution – must be interpreted in this context.

Baqeri’s military-security delegation is reported to have included Brigadier-General Mohammad Pakpour, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) land forces, thus underlining the immediate practical dimension of the visit. In view of the IRGC’s extensive involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, Pakpour’s presence in Ankara hints at potentially wide-ranging cooperation in tackling regional security threats.

The threat of Kurdish irredentism

Furthermore, Baqeri’s visit to Ankara has been interpreted widely as an indicator of a joint determination to counter the “Kurdish threat” across the region. For its part, the IRGC has denied Turkish claims of imminent joint operations against Kurdish rebel groups beyond Iranian borders, presumably in Syria. However, the denial is a statement of the obvious; for political reasons, the Islamic Republic cannot undertake joint military operations with a NATO-aligned military power.

Read: Kurds moving firmly towards independence referendum, says Barzani

Short of joint military operations, there is a broad range of potential cooperative scenarios in respect of the threat posed by the YPG in Syria. Containing the YPG, and its parent political organisation the PKK-aligned Democratic Union Party (PYD), will be a top priority for both Turkey and Iran (and by extension’s Iran’s ally in Damascus) once Daesh has been uprooted from the eastern Deir ez-Zor province.

The cooperation can begin by undermining the political structures established by the PYD and its connection to non-Kurdish rebels as embodied by the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The latter is spearheading the operation to retake Raqqa, the centre of Daesh’s bogus caliphate.

In view of the SDF’s strong US backing (which includes the supply of arms), Damascus will require strong Turkish political backing in order to move against it. However, the military struggle will not be as hard as some imagine, especially as the YPG is essentially a light infantry force which will likely crumble in the face of a superior military power.

Beyond Syria, Iran is keen to secure Turkey’s support for containing the ambitions of Iraq’s Kurds, as demonstrated by an upcoming referendum on independence. It is noteworthy that immediately upon his return from Ankara, General Baqeri warned against changes to regional political geography. Ankara has strong ties with the Erbil-based Kurdistan Democratic Party which is spearheading the drive for nominal independence.

In conclusion, it is important to note the limitations of the upgrade in Iranian-Turkish ties. The highly respected Iranian Diplomacy website has published an analysis highlighting the structural obstacles to a strategic breakthrough in relations. It reminds the analytical community of the fact that for all its current troubles with the US and Europe, Turkey remains a committed member of NATO; hence, its foreign policy cannot diverge too sharply from that of the Western powers. For that reason alone, Turkish-Iranian military and security cooperation cannot develop beyond the tactical level.